In a month I’ll be teaching a postgraduate education unit called ‘Literacy across the curriculum’, and I’ll be asking each of the 90 students to report on a high school student’s reading. The project is described in more detail in my post: Headlights in the fog. I have decided to do the project myself, and have been talking to Josh, a fifteen year old ex-student of mine. This post is Part 3 of a series describing my progress. The two earlier posts on Josh were The walled city: Josh Part 1 and Doubts and loves: Josh Part 2
My final meeting with Josh
“So how’s Othello going?” I asked. I knew that we were getting into the assessment and grading season at school, and that maybe the pressure might lead to a kind of anxious narrowing of focus in Josh, a resurfacing of his earlier worry that he just couldn’t relate to Shakespeare, that he couldn’t really see the point. So I was surprised by his response.
“Othello‘s going really well,” he said. “It’s like a warning …
“Like a warning? What do you mean?”
“It’s like a warning to me. It’s like one of those fables that gives a lesson. It’s like it’s saying: Look beneath the surface, don’t be fooled by what appears to be the truth, there’s a kind of dark human nature down there that we want to bury beneath the carpet, but don’t be fooled.”
“That’s very interesting,” I said, thinking back to what I’d written in earlier posts about interpretative communities and how I’d assumed Josh’s experience of English would be shaped and limited by utilitarian notions of the purpose of education. But here was Josh talking about his English as if it involved some kind of search for understanding about the world, as if it provided insights into human nature. I was reminded of the comment my friend Karen LaBonte made at the end of my last post: “Actually, I think I see that Josh probably has lots of interpretive communities, and that he makes himself new for each community he is in.”
“Yes, we’re coming to the end of our study of Othello, and it feels like everything is fitting together now.”
“It’s all making sense.”
“Yes, things seem to be working in harmony.”
“I’m wondering whether this feeling of it all coming together has built up over time, or whether there was a moment when everything seemed to slot into place?”
“I think there was an actual moment … or at least an actual event … It was when we watched the movie.”
“You’ve just been watching the movie of Othello?”
“Yes, we’ve just finished it. Watching the movie allowed me to see past the language. The play became more of a story than a sort of textual analysis. Without the movie, I’d still be behind the barrier of the language. The movie helped me to walk through the barrier and into a simple story, it flowed really well…”
Josh paused, but it didn’t feel as though he’s run out of things to say. He was flowing himself by now!
“… yeah, the movie flowed really well, it was really well acted. But it wasn’t just the movie that got me more into it. It was also reading what one of the critics had said about the play. Our teacher was telling us about a critic who was saying that Iago was pure evil. I didn’t agree with this, I didn’t think he was completely evil, he knew what was right and what was wrong … But I couldn’t find the words the express what I thought, or I didn’t have the evidence on the spot, so this gave me a reason to go back to the text. Well, not so much the text of the written play, more the movie. I kept thinking of the actor who was playing Iago, and you could tell that he was feeling awkward about what was happening, you could tell from his body language that he was asking himself, Should I be doing this?’ … And that got me thinking about the actor. It was like he was a critic as well.”
“The actor was a critic? Say some more.”
“Well, the actor had to come up with an interpretation of Iago. Shakespeare didn’t say on the page: ‘Iago is feeling awkward at this point … or … Iago frowns as if uncertain about what to do’. The actor has to decide what’s going on inside Iago, and his body language is going to reflect what he has decided. It’s like body language is a critical reading. The actor is a critic.”
I was finding all of this mighty interesting and mighty impressive. This insight was, Josh assured me, his own, though the class had been talking in general terms about critics and critical readings. But he’d come up with the idea about the actor being a critic. And the impetus to all of this thinking had been his desire to justify his disagreement with the critic who said that Iago was ‘pure evil’.
Many years ago I wrote a book called ‘Their other lives‘, about 12 college students and the lives they lived (inner and outer lives) which were never revealed in the classroom. I was reminded of this as I listened to Josh. He had been one of just under 30 students in my English class last year, and I had always seen him as keen and workmanlike plodder, unlikely to be able to think as deeply or to express himself as well as he was doing right now. I had been wrong, I’d seen only a part of Josh, and not the deepest part. This was my own experience as a school student, too; of feeling that the inner and outer lives which I knew to be a part of me were never allowed to surface in the classroom, and that my learning suffered as a result. My schooling was thin affair. It had no depth. Now, as a teacher, I try to find ways of allowing connections to be made between the syllabus and the students’ other lives, but this conversation was reminding me how significant the gap still was. Perhaps the deschoolers would say that it will always be thus.
This conversation with Josh was also reminding me of the danger of holding too narrow a definition of ‘literacy’ and ‘reading’. How ought we to ‘read ‘Shakespeare (or any topic of substance, in any discipline)? Not (As my American colleague J. D. Wilson Jnr reminded me in a response to my last blog) just by sitting down with a book and, either alone or with the help of a teacher, deciphering the text. We play with it, watch it, act it, think about it, discuss it, argue about it, read around it; these are all parts of literacy.
Josh and I went on to talk of other things. He didn’t do much reading for any of his subjects, he said, just the textbooks and occasional articles he was given. Occasionally he found these things interesting and informative, but usually only when he could relate them to his everyday life or to his aspirations. He was thinking of being an engineer, or maybe something to do with physical education as he’d recently developed a strong interest in his PE subject at school. Business studies had always been an good subject for him, more though because his parents were both in business and he loved the family discussions about the issues that came up in their work. “I enjoy all of that much more than the textbook,” he said. “I learn a lot more from it too.”
We talked, too, about his experience in my class, where we’d read Animal Farm, Macbeth and Of Mice and Men. He himself lives on a small farm outside Canberra, so he could relate to Of Mice and Men and found the world it described an interesting one. He enjoyed the work we did on Animal Farm, too, but for a different reason:
“It was good when we did those projects, when we had to choose from a list of possible research projects after we’d read the book. I chose to compare Animal Farm with The Giver, because both books were about trying to set up a perfect community but it goes wrong. I didn’t particular enjoy The Giver when we read it in Year 7. It was just a book that I had to study. But because this time it was my choice to study it, and I could see a reason for it, I really got into it this time. I found it really interesting to compare what happens in Animal Farm with what happened in the Giver community. It was so much better reading it this time, when I wasn’t being told to read it, it was my choice. Choice is really important.”
Josh described his pattern of reading from about Year 5 (when he was 9) to now in Year 11. “I wasn’t a confident reader in Year 5,” he said. “I could read, but there was no real flow to it, I couldn’t read out loud with any confidence, and I wasn’t in the top reading group. I discovered books I really liked when I was in about Year 7, and I discovered Matthew Reilley in Year 10, so I did more reading then. But not much otherwise. Of any kind, fiction or non-fiction.
And finally we talked about English the subject. I’d asked him what he thought the purpose of English was.
“I wish English was more practical,” Josh said, in a tone of voice quite different from the one he’d been using earlier. “With some it, yeah, I think to myself: Why am I being asked to do this? . English needs to be about getting the skills you’re going to need in the workplace. Basic skills. The ones you’re going to need throughout life. Like when we were in primary school, that’s the kind of work we did in English. Stuff that would give you a headstart. Stuff that would be useful.”
This last response came from a different Josh to the one who had been talking about Othello being like a fable giving him a warning about human nature. This was much more the down-to-earth Josh, the farm boy, the student who related best to a syllabus which had practical uses. Two different Joshes, each with his own perspective, each looking for something different from an English course.
I was reminded again of Karen LaBonte’s words:
Josh probably has lots of interpretive communities, and that he makes himself new for each community he is in.